Law enforcement officials across Georgia are proving to be the biggest obstacle to a bill that would allow medical cannabis oil to be manufactured and distributed in the state.
“From what we hear, law enforcement is our biggest opponent,” Katie Harrison told The Times last month. Harrison is a Hall County resident who treats her young son with cannabis oil to treat his seizure disorders.
There appear to be enough votes in the House to pass the bill, but pushback from Georgia sheriffs and district attorneys have raised alarm bells in the Senate, as well as in the administration of Gov. Nathan Deal.
Lawmakers approved the use of cannabis oil last year to treat eight medical conditions. The drug is known to have anti-anxiety effects, among other beneficial properties, and strains lack the levels of the psychoactive ingredient THC that gets marijuana smokers high.
But with no manufacturing and distribution of the drug within Georgia, some patients have been forced to break federal law by acquiring the drug out of state and transporting it back, according to advocates.
Advocates also want to expand the list of approved medical conditions that can be treated with the drug.
Lee Darragh, district attorney for the Northeastern Judicial Circuit of Georgia, said law enforcement’s initial support for a very restricted use of cannabis oil has reached its limit.
“From the beginning, prosecutors have supported low THC oil for situations when no other substance could effectively treat children with seizures,” Darragh said. “After a careful review ... this bill allows for the cultivation of marijuana, which in my opinion would be devastating to our state. It opens the door essentially all the way for marijuana manufacturing and distribution in Georgia, making medical marijuana no longer about children with seizure disorders that can find no other relief.”
The slippery slope argument has gained traction, in part, because of the rising sales of legal marijuana in places like Colorado and California.
Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, told The Times last month that the bill is broader in scope than he desires. Miller, a top floor leader for Deal, said he wants any profit motive curtailed and more safeguards in place.
Medical marijuana was a $1.3 billion industry in California in 2014. And in Colorado, medical and recreational marijuana sales reached nearly $1 billion last year, a 42 percent increase.
Advocates note that sales generated about $135 million in taxes and fees for state and local government coffers to support public safety and education programs.
Many law enforcement officials believe the bill being debated this year in the state legislature would set Georgia on an irreversible path to the emergence of a recreational, big business marijuana industry.
“You’re talking about big money coming into the state,” Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch said. “It won’t stop there.”
Couch said he is “personally uncomfortable” with adopting a program of cultivation and distribution that he believes is a “textbook example” of the commercialization of pot in Colorado.
Moreover, Couch cited a report by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area that shows an increase in marijuana-related traffic fatalities, more associated hospitalizations and higher use among minors as the drug became more popular for medical use and recreational use became legal.
“That’s a costly venture,” Couch said.
Gainesville Police Chief Carol Martin said it’s important for residents to understand just what the bill promises.
“To dispel rumors, the proposed bill does not allow the general public to cultivate marijuana for recreational use,” she said.
Advocates say strict limits on the number of manufacturers, coupled with guidelines and monitoring for distribution, means no form of marijuana will be available for smoking under the proposed legislation.
Reps. Carl Rogers, Emory Dunahoo and Lee Hawkins, all Gainesville Republicans, said they support the bill.
Rogers said he believes restricting cultivation to one or two sites at the University of Georgia or the Medical College of Georgia will alleviate concerns.
“The proposed bill has been changed from what was originally submitted, with more changes still to come forth,” Martin said. “Hopefully, any changes will prevent the irresponsible dispensing of THC oil, which could cause persons to become addicted, similar to what has occurred with pill mill clinics and prescription medication.”